Comment & analysis

Security integration in Myanmar: reflections from conflict-affected societies

14 September 2018 Dylan Hendrickson  Security integration in Myanmar: reflections from conflict-affected societies

Security integration – a term loosely referring to a process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) and security sector reform (SSR) – is central to long-term prospects for stability, peace and development in most conflict-affected societies. In this article Dylan Hendrickson looks at the challenges of this process in Myanmar and what the country can learn from the experiences of other conflict-affected contexts.

The political dialogue taking place in Myanmar since 2016 has raised hopes that an agreement can be reached on future security arrangements that will meet the needs of the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups. But progress has been slow, reflecting both the distrust between the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s armed forces) and the ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) – and illustrating the complexity of the country’s security environment.

The security integration challenges in Myanmar are unique. First, there are significantly more parties involved than in most other international cases. Second, security integration will need to occur simultaneously with the transition to a federal political system. Third, there is the complex historical evolution of the EAOs as armed groups, which has included failed past attempts at security integration. This has left many EAOs reluctant to commit to security integration until there is confidence it will occur on terms more acceptable to them.

Underlying these challenges is the lack of a shared national vision for how the security sector should be structured and governed within a democratic, federal system. The first paper in Saferworld’s series on this topic, titled Security integration in Myanmar: past experiences and future visions, contextualises the complex history and current discourse around security integration and outlines the widely divergent interests and positions of the NLD government, the Tatmadaw, and the EAOs.

Saferworld’s new report draws on the experiences of a number of countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas which offer insights into the challenges of integrating non-state armed groups into national security sectors*. The main lesson is that there are no simple security integration models that can be applied in Myanmar. The aim of the research is to highlight steps taken by other countries to promote security integration and to inform deeper reflections on how to craft a national approach that responds to Myanmar’s unique circumstances.

Because all of these contexts have vastly different histories as well as diverse political and institutional backgrounds, none of the ‘solutions’ discussed are directly transferable. But they do highlight a number of important considerations for Myanmar as it negotiates a more inclusive security sector as a way to build lasting peace.

Limitations of international concepts

DDR and SSR represent two aspects of the conventional international approach to consolidating peace in countries emerging from a period of armed conflict. While the DDR and SSR concepts have been adopted, at least at a rhetorical level, by the Myanmar parties, their track record elsewhere is mixed[3]. The reasons for these shortcomings vary, but generally stem from an absence of the political, economic and social conditions necessary for success, rather than technical or logistical gaps.

Governments and conflict parties also often perceive SSR as a western concept of limited relevance to them. In addition it may be seen as a high risk process which can discourage its uptake. Myanmar, like other countries engaged in a peace process, could therefore benefit from a shared understanding of what security, and by association security integration, looks like in its own context. As adversaries engage in negotiation and confidence building after a prolonged period of conflict there is an opportunity to re-orient security thinking towards long-term peacetime needs.

Importance of an internally-driven approach

Meaningful change and progress in security negotiations will only be possible with serious commitment from within Myanmar. A critical element will be the development of an agreed definition of security that all parties can agree to and which reflects national circumstances. While the concepts of DDR and SSR can serve as a useful framework for thinking about the challenges of building an inclusive security sector, they do not provide a clear or contextualised guide for action. Nor should they be used as a substitute for negotiations that are genuinely inclusive, both of the wide range of conflict parties and of diverse and marginalised voices in society. Evidence from elsewhere indicates that the inclusion of women in particular is strongly linked with longer-lasting and more durable peace agreements.

In countries where SSR has been ‘handed down’ from external bodies, for instance in the context of some large multi-national peace support operations, the momentum for change has often slowed, with initial gains reversing after international donors or organisations pull out. Myanmar’s locally-driven peace process provides an opportunity for domestic actors to build the institutions, technical capacities and political momentum necessary to achieve a locally-owned and more sustainable – albeit long and painstaking – process of change in the security sector.

In it for the long haul

The ambitious changes that the NLD and EAOs want to see in Myanmar’s security sector are likely to take a generation or more. They will also face an additional set of challenges as Myanmar shifts to a federal political system. In most countries, the development of federal security systems has been an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary process – occurring over an extended period and allowing for adjustments to be made in response to changing circumstances.

Without a clear agreement on the structure of Myanmar’s federal security system, an incremental approach may be preferable, allowing greater space to get political consensus, institutional capacity and financial resources. Involved parties could benefit from mapping out a phased process of security integration involving goals and actions in stages both before and after a union accord – with each step of the process accompanied by transitional security arrangements that give EAOs the confidence to stay the course.

Change from within

Civilian policy communities that focus on defence and security issues are crucial to the success of security transitions in countries without a tradition of democratic security sector governance. Such networks can help steer security discussions towards a broader focus on people’s needs, build partnerships across the civilian-military divide, hold security actors to account for their actions, and strengthen domestic coalitions for change. Experience from other countries suggests that, over time, as civilians gain expert security knowledge and influence, they can gain the respect of the military and also encourage former adversaries to collaborate more closely in addressing reform challenges. This can help to open up policy debates on defence and security to a wider civilian audience.

The process of reconciling conflicting security visions and interests will nonetheless take time in Myanmar and will involve both successes and setbacks. But without progress through dialogue there cannot be a realistic expectation of improving democratic security sector governance in the country. The commitments of the government, Tatmadaw and EAOs to a democratic, federal state offer a common basis on which dialogue should continue towards creating a shared national vision for the security sector.

Read the report, Security integration in conflict-affected societies: considerations for Myanmar


* The countries examined include Nepal, Nigeria and Somalia (which are federal states), India and South Africa (which are quasi-federal states), Guatemala, Indonesia, Mozambique, the Philippines, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe (which are unitary states), as well as Canada, Germany, and the United States (which are more established federal states), and the UK.

Read more about our work in Myanmar.